I have been wanting to writing about the National Art Gallery, Islamabad (NAG) ever since it’s hyped-up opening in 2007. However, being the efficient procrastinator that I am, it was only recently – after reading Carol Duncan’s article titled ‘Art Museums and the ritual of citizenship’ – that I finally found the incentive to write this blog.
Before diving into her article, here’s a brief outline of her view on museums. She explores the idea of the art museum as a ceremonial monument, wherein visitors enact a ‘secular ritual’ by following a route through a programmed narrative of the history of art, in which “art history displaces history, purges it of social and political conflict and distils it down to a series of triumphs, mostly of individual genius.” She exposes the art museum as a site which is not a transparent and neutral sheltering space for display and preservation of art, but like ceremonial structures of the past, carries out less obvious political and ideological tasks which affirm certain ideas, values and social identities.
The national art collection at NAG displays the collective genius of Pakistani artists, producing a visible entity of the ‘spiritual wealth’ of the nation. Despite the reality of a very neglected and tormented art history, the museum portrays a sense of historical continuity, exuding national pride. However the museum succeeds not so much as an act of ritual but rather as a spectacle. There is far too great a divide between the art and public sphere for there to occur active art appreciation and spiritual enrichment for the majority of the public. Instead, for the masses, the museum becomes a spectacle, meant to awe and captivate with its sheer scale and size. When I visited the NAG last December, its setting was even more spectacle-like, for it was surrounded in rubble from the four months prior Marriot bomb blast, ironically forming a very literal demonstration of the white cube aesthetic. Passing by chunks of concrete, twisted metal and wasted furniture, one entered the sealed, hygienic white space of the NAG creating a fantastic contrast between the artificial space of its galleries and the social realities outside.
It is common knowledge that art has never been a priority for the state, evident from the fact that the NAG project was first conceived by Zia-ul-Haq in 1978 and has taken thirty years to materialise. The answer as to why Gen. Musharraf finally chose to prioritise this museum for funding can be found in Duncan’s article. She observes that third-world monarchs are increasingly using the western-style museum as a means of signalling to the west that one is a reliable political ally, “imbued with proper respect for and adherence to western symbols and values”. The museum has become a tool with which to provide a veneer of western liberalism, assuring the west that one is a safe bet for economic and military aid.
Musharraf’s policy makers no doubt realised and availed the political usefulness of opening an art museum despite its cost of Rs. 456 million. The government’s decision to spend such massivefunds on building a national art collection was an obvious move to make the state look progressive amidst the piling international accusations of terrorism, backwardness and religious extremism. NAG became the highlight of Musharraf’s policy of Enlightened Moderation, displaying him as a progressive leader, different from the previous, and in comparison‘uncultured’ dictators. Both Musharraf and Pakistan received much positive press coverage following the launch. For example, Carol Grisanti, NBC News Producer, after visiting NAG wrote in her article that the museum “defies Pakistan’s image as a deeply conservative country of religious extremists.”
However, the liberal image projected was only skin-deep. Conservatism was ever present since the Ministry of Culture set up a committee to filter those works which they deemed 'sensitive'. The censorship was not only restricted to nudity in art but also to those works depicting a negative image of the west; for example Iftikar Dadi's Clash of Civilizations was not approved, clearly showing the administration's priority to please America rather than display constructive, progressive visual dialogues. It seems that the administration was so caught up with the political agenda, that little planning was done for the actual running of the museum. Outrageously enough, there was no permanent support system set up to ensure its long-term running and the inaugural show itself was cut short because an extended insurance was beyond the budget.Jamal Shah, the director of the NAG, has continuously cited lack of trained personnel and acute fund shortage as the greatest impediments. However, I fail to understand why the administration did not foresee these problems and plan accordingly! It takes little sense to know that funds and professionals are the two essential things needed to run a museum.
Also, there has been no sustained effort to encourage the common man to visit the museum. No outreach programs have been put in place to allow people from adjoining villages and towns the chance to engage with the national art. The gallery assistants initially assigned to each gallery were extremely uninformed, and within a few months disappeared altogether. Considering the fact that a very tiny percentage of Pakistanis are acquainted with art, friendly, informed invigilators are a necessity in our museum.
NAG, with its opening, brought along a naive hope in the artworld that it would act as a vehicle for creating and promoting large-scale art awareness within the Pakistani public. Indeed, PNCA was given the rare opportunity of affecting a real change in the dynamics of art viewership in Pakistan, however, the opportunity seems to be wasting itself away as three years have passed with no tangible result.